Q&A: Karen Peacock

Through January 6th, a special display will run in conjunction with "Pissarro: Creating the Impressionist Landscape" at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. This display, titled "Piece of Mind," features some 30 works created by participants in an art therapy program at Alzheimer's Day Services (ADS). Although other museums around the country offer Alzheimer's programs for individuals and families, most don't include art therapy sessions or the resulting exhibitions.

We talked to former stay-at-home mom and artist, Karen Peacock, who is now an art therapist intern at ADS and co-curator of the exhibit — a position she calls "an honor" and a collaboration she describes as "uncharted territory."

How did you become interested in art therapy, specifically working with Alzheimer patients?

I spent a lot of time with my grandmother growing up. On Sunday afternoons, we'd visit nursing homes, funeral homes, hospitals, and the homebound. Through her example, and my close relationship with her, I developed an affinity for older adults. My first job was working with mentally challenged adults. We painted ceramics, and what I learned from that made me want to do more to help others through art therapy.

What kind of training do you have?

A degree in art, with some background in psychology. Now I'm in graduate school at the Pratt Institute of Art in New York City. I travel there five weeks a year, attending intensive courses, and I completed an internship last year in Memphis at the Hope and Healing Center. This year my internship is at Alzheimer's Day Services.

Why do you think art is therapeutic for people with Alzheimer's?

Participants are using the more visual right side of the brain, which stays intact longer. And three things are especially beneficial: Communications, because art helps people tap into their emotional world and articulate it. Memory, because sometimes art can help retrieve memories when nothing else can. And autonomy, because being able to come in and choose the colors, to create what they want, makes the participants feel they're still in control.

How do you get the participants started in art therapy?

I try to meet each one at his or her level of functioning. Each has a goal. For one, the goal may be holding a paintbrush and painting within a circle, especially for those who need boundaries to control the chaos in their mind. That's when an outline can be therapeutic. For another, the goal may be about expressing freedom and inner feelings.

What themes emerge?

Often participants communicate through metaphor. A painting of a home may represent the person, and the emptiness or loneliness of the house is their way of telling me how they feel inside. With one woman who painted a house, I asked her what the house needed. She said, "It needs to be torn down and rebuilt." Things like that are so powerful, telling me how they feel, through metaphor.

Has art therapy improved their memory?

Staff members have told me that participants ask for me when I'm not here. Not by name, but they know me because I come in wearing my art smock and they remember the experience.

How do they feel about their exhibit?

When I tell them their work will be in a museum, they laugh or smile. The Brooks has made it easy for them by providing reproductions of the art work as reference. Participants can create their own work in response to that, rather than having so much white space to intimidate them.

What satisfaction do you get from this?

There's still a person inside and I can see that person in the art therapy session. It helps to have a good sense of humor in this job. Humor and a positive outlook seem to rub off on the participants. And getting them out of confinement – like visiting the Brooks – gives life to what's becoming more and more dormant. 

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